Sinn Fein leader hails prospect of united Ireland as party set for major gains in general election

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Geraint Vincent

The prospect of a united Ireland is "absolutely" closer, the President of Sinn Fein has told ITV News as exit polls in Ireland's general election indicate a strong surge in support for the republican party.

Following voting on Saturday, Sinn Fein, along with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are tied in first preference votes.

Mary Lou McDonald said the support for her party is a "big statement of change" and that she expected a referendum on Irish unity to take place "in the next five years or so".

An exit poll suggested almost a quarter of voters backed Sinn Fein in the General Election.

Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael consistently ruled out going into coalition with their rivals in the run-up to the general election.

However Fianna Fail's leader Micheal Martin stopped short of repeating his pre-election pledge never to do business with Sinn Fein and did not rule out entering government with Ms McDonald's party.

But Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar did re-state his determination not to partner up with Sinn Fein.

He said he would not be speaking to Ms McDonald with a view to forming a coalition, insisting Fine Gael was "not compatible with Sinn Fein".

Exit polls suggest a surge in support for Sinn Fein. Credit: PA

Speaking in the constituency of Dublin Central where she was confirmed as the first candidate elected with 11,223 votes, Ms McDonald also told ITV News she believes there is now a "democratic pathway to Irish unity".

When asked by Geraint Vincent if she thought some voters in Ireland and onlookers from the UK may have concerns over Sinn Fein's success due to their past link to the IRA - Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA during the Troubles - the 50-year-old said people "have nothing to be fearful of".

"We are an open democratic party, we've won in this election in this state a quarter of the popular vote," Ms MacDonald said.

"I suppose we could all look at each others' pasts, particularly across the Irish Sea and wonder...

"I don't think that achieves anything constructive, I think we have managed to construct a peace process over the last few decades which is robust and strong and we now have a democratic pathway to Irish unity, to ending partition and I believe that a referendum on that will happen in the next five years or so and I want us to prepare for that, not just in this island, but in Britain also."

Counting is underway in the 2020 Irish General Election. Credit: PA

Ms McDonald also hailed her party's success as demonstrating that Ireland no longer has a "two-party system".

"It's a big statement that this is no longer a two-party system, it's a statement that people want a different type of government and people have great confidence in us, and I say that with all humility," she said.

The President of Sinn Fein said she was willing to talk to all political leaders but expressed a desire to lead a coalition made up of left-leaning parties, without any input from Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, which are both centre-right in outlook.

Ms McDonald said she has already reached to the Greens, Social Democrats and People Before Profit to discuss the prospect of them joining her party in government.

"It's been an election about change," she said.

"The extraordinary thing is that it seems that the political establishment, and by that I mean Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are in a state of denial.

"They are still not listening to what the people have said.

"I want us to have a government for the people. I want us to have ideally a government with no Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in it.

Ms McDonald was elected in the Dublin Central constituency. Credit: PA

While it remains unclear whether it will ultimately be part of any future coalition, Sinn Fein's performance has undoubtedly sent shockwaves through Ireland's political establishment.

The final declaration of seats remains a long way off, but the first wave of declarations suggest it is set to shatter Ireland's long-established two-party system.

Despite topping the polls across the country when first preferences were added up, Sinn Fein is still unlikely to emerge with the most seats.

That is mainly because it ran significantly fewer candidates than its two main rivals, 42 compared to Fianna Fail's 84 and Fine Gael's 82.

Fianna Fail looks in prime position to return as the largest party with Fine Gael braced for the loss of several seats.

No party will come close to securing the 80 seats required for a majority in the Dail parliament, so some form of coalition government is inevitable.

Leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar has ruled out doing a deal with Sinn Fein. Credit: PA

Mr Varadker managed to cling on as TD for Dublin West, but he had to wait to the fifth count before being elected.

Holding up four fingers, he said: “Another term of it.”

His party is predicted to end the night with a seat total in the mid to high 30s having entered the campaign with 47.

But he was adamant he would not be joining forces with Sinn Fein in a coalition.

"My view on this is exactly what I have said during the campaign and what I said during the campaign and what my party said during the campaign wasn't a tactic or a strategy, it was what we honestly believed and for us coalition with Sinn Fein is not an option," he said.

"We are willing to talk to other parties about how we could form a government and give this country a government that can spend the next five years dealing with the problems that we have had to tackle for the past few years."

Mary Lou McDonald said the result marked a Credit: PA

His tone was decidedly different to that of Fianna Fail's leader Micheal Martin who was repeatedly pressed to restate his opposition to a potential Sinn Fein partnership.

While insisting there were "significant incompatibility" issues in terms of policy, he did not dismiss the suggestion outright.

"Our policies, our positions and principles haven't changed overnight or in 24 hours," he said.

He added: "We will obviously listen. The people have spoken and there is no greater democrat than I, but that said we will not pre-empt the outcome itself because it's very clear to us that the destination of the final seats in many constituencies cannot be called now."

  • How does Ireland's voting system work?

The Republic of Ireland uses the single transferrable vote - a form of proportional representation - in which voters rank candidates in order of their preference.

On election day, voters number the candidates, giving their first preference to the candidate they most want to see elected, numbering all the candidates in descending order down to their least favourite.

However voters can put numbers next to as many or as few candidates as they like.

The numbers tell the people counting to move your vote if your favourite candidate has enough votes already or stands no chance of winning.

In order for a candidate to be elected, they need to receive a set number of votes, known as the quota.

The quota is based on the number of vacancies and the number of votes cast.

After the first count has finished, the surplus of votes for a successful candidate who has exceeded their quota is distributed.

The votes are distributed to the second preferences on all of the ballot papers.

When all the first-count surplus votes have been distributed, then the people counting the vote remove the least popular candidate.

People who voted for them have their votes moved to their second favourite candidate. This process continues until every vacancy is filled.